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Back From Oblivion: 2011 Career Resurrections
Dan Port | Monday July 18th, 2011
Vogelsong had long stints in Japan and the minors. (Icon SMI)
Vogelsong had long stints in Japan and the minors. (Icon SMI)
Major League Baseball is full of comeback stories.  From pitcher Tommy John's medically-enabled return from injury to slugger Josh Hamilton's ability to silence his personal demons and win the 2010 American League MVP Award, the league has had a variety of unexpected career revivals, and 2011 is no different.

As we get deeper into the second half of play, a look at big league rosters reveals many positively surprising performances, some of which have come from players who baseball fans and analysts may not have predicted to even be on a major league team this year, let alone playing parts in their teams' success.

Below is a list of players who have come back from injury, poor performance, or some other issue and quite unexpectedly taken on roles with their respective 2011 clubs.  Some are better known than others, but few people thought any of these guys would be key parts of any big league roster in 2011.  They have, essentially, come back from oblivion.

Ryan Vogelsong - SP, San Francisco Giants
Last MLB season: 2006
There's no bigger comeback story this season than the tale of pitcher Ryan Vogelsong, a former 5th round draft choice who worked his way to the majors but struggled in 120 big league games between 2000 and 2006.  After that 2006 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, Vogelsong moved overseas and played with Japanese squads Hashin and Orix before returning to the states and playing Triple-A ball with the Phillies and Angels organizations last season.  He performed fairly well in those stops, but his overall numbers didn't indicate that he would ever be a very successful big league hurler.  After all of this bouncing around, Vogelsong eventually joined the Giants organization but wasn't slated as a part of their rotation until an injury forced lefty Barry Zito to the disabled list for the first time in his career.  Taking on Zito's rotation spot, Vogelsong has been fantastic, making the All-Star Game and finishing the first half of the year with a 2.17 ERA, good for fourth in all of baseball and second in the National League.  While it's unlikely that Vogelsong will keep that sort of impressive pace in 2011's second half, he's still set to have a year far more impressive than even the boldest of baseball prognosticators could have predicted.

Wily Mo Pena - OF, Arizona Diamondbacks
Last MLB season: 2008
Recently demoted outfielder Wily Mo Pena is known for one thing: his home run power.  He was promoted to the Diamondbacks earlier this season to serve as the club's designated hitter during interleague play, and he impressed by smacking four home runs versus American League teams.  The team kept him on long enough for him to add another longball, giving him five in just 46 at-bats, but then sent him back to Triple-A Reno.  Despite a .363 average in the minor leagues this year, Pena is not much of a contact hitter and piles up strikeouts, which is why he hadn't seen major league action since 2008.  Back in 2004, Pena slugged 26 home runs for the Cincinnati Reds, and he added another 19 for them in 2005.  At just 29, it's possible that Pena could catch on with the right club, possibly as a designated hitter, and still have another big season.

Jason Isringhausen - RP, New York Mets
Last MLB season: 2009
Relief pitcher Jason Isringhausen has suffered from a litany of injuries since 2008, and he managed just eight big league innings in 2009, leading many to believe that the former all-star closer would be forced into retirement.  Now 38 years old, Isringhausen has proven his doubters wrong and is in the midst of an excellent 2011 campaign, one that may include a return to closing duties now that the Mets have traded former ninth inning man Francisco Rodriguez.  Isringhausen began his career with the Metropolitans and appeared to be one of baseball's next great starting pitchers after winning 9 games and posting a 2.18 ERA in just 14 starts back in 1995.  Injuries and ineffectiveness derailed his career as a starter, and he was eventually traded to Oakland.  In Billy Beane's regime, Isringhausen reinvented himself as a closer and between 2000 and 2007 he tallied 272 saves, averaging 34 per season and posting a 2.81 ERA with Oakland and St. Louis in that span.  It's unclear exactly how much Izzy has left in the tank, but if he keeps going like he is this season, he could be well on his way to a third career renaissance.

Luis Ayala - RP, New York Yankees
Last MLB season: 2009
Reliever Luis Ayala is no stranger to comebacks, and 2011 actually marks the second time he's missed a full season and then returned to the big leagues.  From 2003 to 2005, Ayala was among the top middle relievers in baseball, posting a 2.75 ERA and averaging 77 innings per year for the Montreal Expos, but he missed the entire 2006 season with injuries.  He roared back with a strong 2007 campaign with the Washington Nationals, but since then, he's spent time with the Mets, Twins, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Rockies organizations.  He joined the Yankees this year and has emerged as one of their top bullpen arms. 

Joey Devine - RP, Oakland Athletics
Last MLB season: 2008
After initially coming to Oakland from Atlanta as part of the Mark Kotsay trade in January of 2008, relief pitcher Joey Devine quickly became one of Oakland's top bullpen arms and was even considered a possible closer entering the 2009 season.  In 2008, Devine finished sixth in American League rookie of the year voting and posted a 0.59 ERA with 49 strikeouts in 45 2/3 innings, but elbow problems emerged during the next spring and Devine was shut down.  It wasn't clear at the time, but Devine would end up missing two full seasons with his injury.  This year, Devine has picked up right where he left off, and the 27 year-old righthander has been excellent in his role as a setup man for closer Andrew Bailey.  If he can avoid injuries from here on out, he could still have a very bright baseball career ahead of him.

Sean Burroughs - 3B, Arizona Diamondbacks
Last MLB season: 2006
The San Diego Padres had high hopes for Sean Burroughs when they selected him with the ninth overall pick of the 1998 amateur draft, but he never reached those lofty expectations.  Burroughs holds a .317 career batting average in the minor leagues, but he lacks base stealing ability and his home run power never emerged, even after several minor league seasons and chances with the big league club.  He spent time with the Tampa Bay and Seattle organizations, but stepped away from baseball completely just a few games into the 2007 minor league season and didn't play organized ball for three full seasons.  He returned to baseball this year and has had several chances with the Diamondbacks, mainly as a result of his amazing .400-plus batting average for Triple-A Reno.  Now 30, Burroughs may have turned a corner and could still have a decent career ahead of him, even if he never fulfills the big hopes that the Padres had for him over a decade ago.

Jamey Wright - RP, Seattle Mariners
Last MLB season: 2010
Unlike the rest of the players on this list, Mariners reliever Jamey Wright played in the major leagues a lot last year and hasn't missed a significant amount of time over his career.  However, his emergence as one of Seattle's top setup men this season was rather unexpected, and that earns him a spot here.  Wright's career began back in 1996 as a member of the Colorado Rockies starting rotation.  His numbers, like all pitching numbers at Coors Field in the late nineties, were pretty bad.  He was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers as part of a three-way deal in December of 1999, and he actually put up the best numbers of his career as a member of the Milwaukee rotation, topping out at 11 wins in 2001.  He was traded, again, in August of 2002 and became a St. Louis Cardinal, but it didn't last.  Since 2003, Wright has played for the Royals, Rockies (again), Giants, Rangers, Royals (again), Indians, and now the Mariners.  Until this season, these clubs mainly used him as a long reliever and mop-up man, basically eating innings and sparing the need to use better relief pitchers.  After nearly a decade of this work, it is quite surprising that he has been so helpful as a late game option for Seattle.  If he keeps going like he's going, Wright could post the lowest ERA of his career and may prove that he has a few solid seasons left in him.

Yhency Brazoban - RP, Arizona Diamondbacks
Last MLB season: 2008
After a strong 32 2/3 inning debut season with the Dodgers in 2004, 24 year-old righthanded relief pitcher Yhency Brazoban looked like the next great Dodger hurler and a possible successor to closer Eric Gagne.  However, the 2005 season wasn't nearly as promising for Brazoban, and he spent most of his next three seasons toiling away in the Dodgers minor league organization, emerging just briefly for a few innings at the big league level each season.  The Dodgers cut ties with Brazoban in 2008, and he didn't pitch in any relevant league before resurfacing in the Mexican league last year.  His strong performance there and still-dynamic pitching arm earned him a return stateside, and he worked himself all the way back to the big leagues when the Arizona Diamondbacks recalled him in early July.  He hasn't really asserted himself in limited work since joining the club, but at age 31 he may still have some firepower in his once-cherished right arm.

Scott Proctor - RP, Atlanta Braves
Last MLB season: 2010
Reliever Scott Proctor played just a few games for the Braves at the end of the 2010 season after missing all of 2009 with injuries, thus his inclusion in this list.  Back in 2006, Proctor was a 29 year-old bullpen workhorse for the AL East champion New York Yankees, logging 102 1/3 relief innings for the club.  He served a similar role for the Yanks in 2007 until he was traded to the Dodgers for Wilson Betemit in July of that same year.  His 2008 season was not good and then derailed by injury, and at the time it seemed possible that the former bullpen leader might be forced into early retirement.  Now 34, Proctor hasn't really had the kind of 2010 season that one would want so far, but he is nonetheless a useful part of the Braves bullpen and adds a veteran presence to counterbalance the club's young late-inning tandem of Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel

Rene Rivera C, Minnesota Twins
Last MLB season: 2006
Despite his recent demotion, catcher Rene Rivera's return to the major leagues this year was still notable.  Rivera is a solid defensive catcher and, as a 22 year-old backup, he logged a career-best 99 at-bats for the Mariners back in 2006.  However, his .152 batting average that year didn't bode well for his chances to stay in the major leagues.  Since then, Rivera has spent time with the Dodgers, Mets, and Yankees organizations, but was never able to return to the big leagues.  This year, however, the Minnesota Twins were dealing with Joe Mauer 's injury woes and needed a catcher, and Rivera joined the team in early May.  Working as the backup to starter Drew Butera , Rivera did little to assert himself with his bat, but his work behind the plate was again serviceable.  He hit just .181 in 72 at-bats with the team and, now that Mauer has returned to the team, was inevitably going to be sent back to Triple-A Rochester.  Rivera has shown some power in the minor leagues and, at 27 years old, he could still have some major league years ahead of him, though he'll likely spend them as a reserve.
Dan PortDan Port has been a writer and article editor for Baseball Press since the fall of 2009. He's a Wisconsin native and Los Angeles resident, as well as an aspiring novelist, moderately successful gambler, and avid craft beer aficionado. You can reach him at dan@baseballpress.com or check him out on Twitter @danport and at DanielPort.com.